Thursday, 21 August 2008

Shameful Silence

The Supreme Court has issued notices to the media on a public interest litigation over the role of the media in the Arushi-Hemraj double case, especially the slanderous reports on the Talwars. It has also suggested that guidelines be drawn up for media coverage of ongoing cases. The Times of India has carried a long article saying this is a case of misplaced priorities and that the police were more guilty in defaming the Talwars than the media. In a related development the press has gone to town over the reinstating of Gurdarshan Singh as IG Meerut Range after he was removed following his allegation at a press conference that Rajesh Talwar had killed his daughter.

In all this, something has been totally ignored – the fate of Krishna and the two other servants arrested for the murder. Has a chargesheet been filed? Has the CBI got conclusive evidence against them? Last I read, and this was some weeks back, the CBI said it knew where the weapon was. So why don’t they produce it and why don’t proceedings against the trio start? Of if there is no evidence against them, why aren’t they being released on bail?

The media is completely devoid of stories on this. In contrast, look at what happened during the 50 days Rajesh Talwar was in jail. There was almost a daily bulletin on him and when he was released there was an outpouring of grief on his wrongful incarceration. But nobody is agonising over the fate of the three servants, let alone shedding tears. Nobody is asking the same questions that were asked when Talwar was languishing in jail. Forget opinion pieces, nobody is even doing a news story on whether their remand period has ended, what is happening to their case, have they got bail. I had dealt with this issue in an earlier post Media Under Trial for Media Trial and the current silence in the media only seems to confirm what I had said toward the end of the piece – that there is a class issue here. Maybe the trio were the real murderers and maybe Talwar had been framed. But if Talwar had to be released for lack of evidence then the same yardstick should apply to these three as well. If the media overkill when Talwar was in jail was shameful, then its silence over the fate of the three servants is equally shameful.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Stung Editor

Today’s Economic Times has a snippet in its gossip column, Through the Third Eye, which says that the editor of a well-known English daily was privy to the cash-for-votes sting and had promised to publish details of the scandal in the paper. But he developed cold feet. ET puts this down to the grapevine and refrains from mentioning the editor. But here’s my guess – Shekhar Gupta of Indian Express. I arrived at the name through a process of elimination.

I first thought of Chandan Mitra, editor of The Pioneer, who is in the Rajya Sabha on a BJP ticket. But then I figured that he’s would not have backed out, precisely for that reason. Somehow I felt the BJP would have preferred to involve a more widely-read paper than Pioneer. Now, it could not have been the extremely pro-Congress Hindustan Times. Nor could it have been The Times of India. The snippet says the editor backed out. Times of India’s editors don’t have the power to take such decisions. So it could only be the Indian Express.

Of course, I have limited myself to the Delhi papers, so I could well be wrong. But of the well-known non-Delhi papers, BJP couldn’t have gone to the pro-left Hindu. The Telegraph is confined to Calcutta. DNA, maybe? Unlikely. I don’t see my ex-boss Jaggi being privy to these kind of things. So the needle points firmly to Shekhar Gupta. Now if only someone will confirm it for me.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Stung Sting

The case of the so-called cash-for-votes sting operation is getting curiouser by the day, and it’s difficult to decide who is right and who is wrong.

To recap, on the day of the trust vote in Parliament, three BJP MPs waved wads of currency in the well of the House, alleging that Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party and Ahmed Patel of the Congress had tried to bribe them to abstain from the vote. Later BJP leader L K Advani said that the BJP had taken the help of a news channel to conduct this sting and that he would reveal the name soon. CNN-IBN then came out and said it was the channel and that it had handed over the tapes to the Speaker.

With speculation that the channel had been armtwisted into not airing the tapes, CNN-IBN later clarified that it had intended to air the tapes but its investigations were not complete and that the BJP MPs had jumped the gun. Among the rumours was one that Anil Ambani who held some stake in CNN-IBN had pressurised it not to air a tape that incriminated his dear friend Amar Singh. The BJP is now saying that CNN-IBN had promised to air the tapes hours before the trust vote but it had reneged on that commitment. It has now decided to boycott CNN-IBN until it airs the tapes. However, it was not banning CNN-IBN from its press conferences.

The Editors Guild has condemned this as pressure tactics and says it infringes on the freedom of the press. Indian Express in an editorial has said this “also raises ethical questions that hark back to the issue of a political party’s democratic responsibility. The BJP might just end up as a double loser”.

First I am surprised the Editors Guild has been so quick to condemn the BJP for boycotting the channel. Because I didn’t see any Editors Guild statement when commerce and industries minister Kamal Nath banned CNBC-TV18, CNBC-Awaaz and Crisilmarketwire (then part of TV18) from his press conferences. All because one CNBC-TV18 anchor was needlessly aggressive while interviewing Nath during a brouhaha over cement prices. Nath’s aides would selectively go up to journalists from these three organisations and request them to leave. I myself was witness to one incident during a conference on WTO at the Maurya Sheraton. The press information officer was on phone and was saying CNBC is not allowed. The matter was later sorted out (how, I am still wanting to know) but this was a patently undemocratic act by the minister. The anchor was insufferable that day and Nath was right in getting angry. But banning the channel was not the answer. There are other ways of handling this. He could have complained to the editor, gone to the Press Council or simply boycotted the channel the way the BJP has decided to do. But how can he ban a news organisation from his press conferences? Press conferences by ministers are not private parties at their residence where they are free to pick and choose the invitees.

Kamal Nath did what he did. What was the rest of the press community doing? Even as his aides went around tapping CNBC reporters and cameramen on the shoulder and escorting them out, other print and television journalists sat quietly and attended the press conference. One walkout by all of them would have brought Nath to his senses. But to come back to my question – why was the Editors Guild silent then?

Separately, this particular sting – like all other stings – raises several questions which journalists must grapple with. Should journalists doing stings get into deals with their sources about when to publish/air the sting? But it’s all a question of give and take; the source has a reason for helping the journalist so some assurance will have to be given/some deal struck. Without the source’s help, the sting cannot be done. There will be no easy answers to these.

That said, the whole controversy over whether the channel was pressurised into not airing the tapes, whether the tapes had conclusive evidence (as the BJP claims) or not sufficient evidence (as CNN-IBN claims) will get sorted out only if the tapes are aired at the earliest. If they have conclusive evidence, it will become obvious that CNN-IBN was pressurised. The channel will only earn sympathy. If the tapes are inconclusive, then the channel will come out as a strong adherent to journalistic ethics and gain everybody’s respect. The BJP will end up looking silly. So it’ll be a win-win for the channel.

Anyway, here’s a link to an interesting point made by Jaya Jaitly in Indian Express, about the double standards in dealing with the Tehelka tapes on arms deals (where she figured) and the CNN-IBN tapes.